Couples counseling has been traditionally known for helping couples with communication skills. It was thought that if couples simply learned how to communicate effectively, they would be able to manage their conflict and feel closer. Although this was partially true, we have learned a lot since then.
In our work as couples therapists, we are going beyond communication skills. Couples are going to have conflict. It has been found in many forms of research that conflict is not necessarily the problem. In fact, distance and avoidance seems to be more problematic and a predictor of divorce than conflict.
All close relationships will have conflict at some point. Instead, what seems to be most pressing is the emotions and fears the conflict triggers in the couple, and whether or not they can be responsive effectively repair the frustrations and hurt feelings to reconnect with one another.
The reason why couples struggle with conflict is often not a lack of skill, but a result of the importance of the relationship. We don't want to lose important relationships, or especially loved ones. Conflict sometimes scares us to believe we might be losing our partner in some way, or are unable to connect to them. If these fears are too great, we can get into very stuck patterns of conflict and distance.
When we are concerned, some of us will want to fight, will engage in conflict desperate to find resolution and connection. Others will avoid the conflict to avoid disaster. They feel the conflict is why the couple can't connect, so it is best to avoid it. Neither of these are effective, but they are the most typical reactions when couples are struggling.
One of the most common patterns in couples is one of each of these positions. One person pursues, the other avoids and withdraws. This can become a very stuck pattern and begin to feel hopeless. The good news is, there are many common stuck patterns in couples that can be resolved with the right help. Understanding and shifting these patterns are the key to reconnection...much more than learning communication skills.
In the past communication skill training was helpful for average arguments. However, we have discovered there is something more going on in close relationships. Certain emotions seem to be triggered, and at that point the "skills" are out the window. We can't seem to gain our composure enough to use them, instead we start fighting for our lives.
More often we find that couples really CAN communicate, once they truly understand what they feel, what they need, and feel safe and secure enough share it.
What you can do:
- Learn about your negative pattern in your relationship, and the role you play.
- Understand yourself better and what you are wanting in your relationship.
- Understand your deeper emotions and needs before approaching your partner. It's hard to help your partner understand you before you truly understand yourself.
- Take the risk, be willing to ask for what you need! Don't fall into the trap of "if they loved me, they would just know," or "what's the point, they won't care."
- Be responsive! When you're partner gives you a chance, and asks for what they need...respond, respond, respond. Be willing to give it because you care.
- Seek help for yourself and your relationship with couples counseling, workshops, retreats, etc.
- Love is something we all want and we all need.
- It is a positive and warm feeling that helps us relax, feel safe, and feel secure.
- With love often comes fear.
- The more precious someone is to us, the more we want to keep their love and acceptance.
- When love is on the rocks, we begin to fear.
- Sue Johnson’s research on couples identifies the connection between fear and love. She found that love, and having a person to attach to, are key to our survival throughout our lives, not just as children. So if there is concern of losing a love, part of us becomes fearful for our survival.
- This is why when a love relationship is breached or ending, people often talk about feelings of death, loss, grief, feeling they can’t go on, etc.
- When someone is so precious to us, we can begin to fear being rejected and abandoned by them in times of distress.
- We fear the pain of loss, heartache, grief.
- We fear our futures without love.
- All of these fears lead to the importance of trust.
- Trust goes beyond honesty.
- Trust has often been thought of trusting you’ll be honest, won’t betray me, won’t lie to me, etc.
- The importance of love, and our fears of losing it, shows how trust runs deeper than we realized.
- Can I trust you with my heart, my life, my deepest emotions?
- Will you be there for me when I really need you the most?
- Will you still love me if I show you where I’m vulnerable and afraid? Will you accept who I really am?
- Will you stand beside me until the end?
When you make these connections between love, fear, and trust, you can begin to see how communication in loving relationships becomes very complicated. There’s a lot more at stake.